Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hearing Voices

Today, part one on the voices of your book characters:

There's an assumption that if you're hearing voices in your head, then you must be crazy. To that, I reply ... maybe not. You could be a writer. Yes, yes, I hear some of you out there muttering, "Aren't they the same thing?"

I encourage all of you to listen to those voices, even cultivate them. Those are characters speaking to you, telling you their stories, their lives.

Let's say you're writing a book. That novel has many characters in it. Each one speaks in a different voice. Each person has to have his or her own voice. If they sound alike then the reader will get them confused or wonder if this is a town of clones. Even siblings who grow up in the same house with the same parents and go to the same schools don't say things the same way.

Those of you who have kids, try an experiment. Ask each one to tell about an event, perhaps shooting fireworks at the last Fourth of July. Have someone else record their words, then transcribe them for you (that way you can't hear their actual voices). Now, read their descriptions. There's a good chance you can tell which kid said what just by the way they word things, the order they tell the story, the things each noticed about the occasion, the details they put in or leave out.

That's because real people have real voices. They have their own way of saying things, of stringing their words together. One person notices the sweat on the basketball players' faces, the way the post player pants as she runs. Another player at the same game pays attention to the hawker going up and down the aisles selling cotton candy. We each see what's important to us. We're each influenced by our pasts, by our previous experiences and beliefs.

Next time: Part Two on Voices

How do you go about hearing the voices of your characters? Do they talk to you? Do you listen? Can you hear the differences in their voices?

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of the novels Dismembering the Past and Angel Sometimes, three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe.


  1. Great idea to have your kids tell a similar story. It's easy to write characters from different age groups, economic levels, race groups, etc. but not so easy to get the subtle differences between similar types of people. That is a great exercise of one's observation skills.

  2. Interesting topic, Helen, with some useful suggestions.

    When you attempt to write in a character's voice, how do you know when you're overdoing or underdoing her distinctive vocabulary?

    Say, for example, she's a hippie. How often would you have her use words like "groovy," "dude," and "bummed out"?

  3. I must be a theater director in a former life, because I see scenes in my head with characters interacting. And Shelley makes a good point when it comes to "voice". One of the toughest things when writing dialogue is to keep your character true throughout the book, especially when they use a vernacular the author isn't fully comfortable with. That's something a good editor needs to pay attention to... did that line actually sound like that character? Or has their vocabulary suddenly made a dramatic improvement? Why? Usually it's because the author has lost the character's voice.


  4. Shelley, I believe you don't have to have a character use an identifying word, like groovy, dude or bummed out, very often. Those words stick out and get noticed by the reader. Used sparingly, they identify the reader. Use too often and they become annoying to the reader.

    The voice of a character is not just in the words they use, but the way they put sentences together, the length of those sentences, their responses to questions, etc. When asked a question by a character do they respond directly? Do they go off on a tangent?

    I think one of the best ways to learn the voices of characters is to listen to people.

  5. Listening to people is definitely the best way to get 'real' dialogue (I do it on the Muni all the time whether I want to or not...), but it's amazing how many people overuse words in real life to an extent that would be irritating and...well...phony when reading it. LIfe is usually more extreme than fiction in many ways.

  6. I listen to people all the time, while walking, at lunch, at work. I wish I could remember it all when I write,but lots goes out the window.

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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